Pogacar favourite as Tour de France set for first Danish start

0
9

Champion Tadej Pogacar is the hot favourite and Covid-19 continues to provide a troubling background but the tension and expectations for this year’s Tour de France, which gets underway on Friday, are as high as ever.

The 109th edition of cycling’s greatest test starts in Copenhagen with three days in Denmark before heading to France, the beginning of a 3,350km odyssey for the 22 teams of eight riders.

The goal, as ever, is to reach the fabled finale on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 24 when Team UAE leader Pogacar will be looking to cement a place in history beneath the Arc de Triomphe with a third straight title at the tender age of just 23.

The far-flung Danish ‘Grand Depart’ features a 13km individual time-trial on the opening day, a windswept 20km bridge crossing on day two and narrow roads through verdant countryside on stage three.

– Beer, butter and bacon –

“Everyone in Denmark rides a bike,” said Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, while the Danish cycling federation chief Jens Peter Hansen and Copenhagen mayor Sophie Haestorp Andersen have both been repeating the mantra that “cycling is in Danish DNA”.

Denmark is a nation where five times more journeys are made by bike than by car.

The Danish tourist office told AFP it was hoping to promote its sustainable cultural tourism and shake off its long-standing reputation for “beer, butter and bacon”.

Ineos’s Italian world champion Filippo Ganna is favourite to snatch the overall leader’s yellow jersey after the opening stage, while Dutch rider Mathieu van der Poel could be the man to exit Denmark with it.

The Tour de France caravan transfers to France next Monday for a treacherous week featuring old, cobbled mining roads.

– Trenches, tunnels and graveyards –

“Teams will be taking stock after stage five,” said Prudhomme of the 11 cobbled sectors that will likely seal someone’s fate in Arras, a town known for its vast World War I trenches, tunnels and graveyards.

In 2018, Ineos’s Geraint Thomas emerged from a similar stage over cobbles with around a 90-second advantage on his key rivals, and went on to win the Tour.

“You may find that by stage seven some of the favourites have fallen into a trap or even been eliminated,” said Prudhomme of the Planche des Belles Filles summit in the Vosges mountains on stage seven, a climb known for its skirmishes between the top contenders.

The race then heads across the Alps, including an epic climb up the legendary Alpe d’Huez, and into the Pyrenees where the equally fearsome Hautacam awaits.

If those mountains have not been enough to produce a winner, the 40.7km time-trial on the penultimate stage should do the trick.

Pogacar won the 2020 edition on a similar last-gasp time-trial, and has since gone from strength to strength, defending his title last year and winning three stage races so far this season.

“The man is at one with his bike,” FDJ team director Thierry Bricaud told AFP. “One-on-one he’s unbeatable.”

While Pogacar is the best rider, Dutch outfit Jumbo-Visma appear to be the strongest team, with their own Slovenian, Primoz Roglic, accompanied by a strong line-up of top riders.

“I’m concentrating on getting the most out of myself and the team in a cumulative way,” said Roglic, whose co-captain Jonas Vingegaard, on home soil in Denmark, came second to Pogacar last year.

France’s long wait for a champion looks set to continue with top rider Julian Alaphilippe a non-starter, still recovering from injury, and climbers Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot targeting stage wins.

The Tour is expected to attract more than 10 million roadside spectators, but Covid cases are continuing to rise in Europe and 30 riders were forced to pull out of the recent Tour de Suisse after testing positive for the virus.

dmc/bsp/jc/mw